I attended the last performance of David Byrne’s American Utopia at the St. James Theater in Broadway. It was bittersweet. Standing outside the stage door, waiting for the cast to exit for the last time with me, is 7-year-old Aiden Doshi. He hopes to get the remaining cast member’s autographs he could not get the day before. Instead of a pizza box he used after seeing the cast exit the stage door the previous night to get autographs, he attended the show and has an actual Playbill tonight. Top on his list of autographs to nab – is David Byrne, or as Aiden refers to him, the “Burn.” Below is a series of pictures of the evening.
I attended with my associate Melissa Heche, a critic, comedian, cabaret performer, and audiologist. Her last role got us to this show – she fitted the band for stage earpieces. She met the performers in her office and shot goop into their ears to make molds. When I mentioned I was heading over to see the last performance in limited seating; she wanted in. My seat is for people 5’3″ and under. There is no legroom in the rafters, but I had a seat—finally, a benefit for being short. I headed over to the theater an hour before showtime and called Heche to high-tail it over as patrons returned a few remaining seats. We watched the show from opposite ends of the theater.
Everything is gray in David Byrne’s `Utopia. The suits, the instruments played Byrne’s hair, and even the gray subject matter he ponders – the brain. Byrne’s cynicism is transparent. From Utopia upside down to discussing his motivation for including songs. “Everybody is Coming to My House” was previously introduced as being sung sweetly and inclusively by a Detroit children’s choir. We got Byrne’s version tonight, where he “wants people to go home already.”
At first, hearing Byrne open up the set and shout out songs was unnerving and out of pitch. Once the band kicked in, it was enjoyable. Byrne was thrown out of his high school choir because he could not sing. He is high-functioning on the autism spectrum and admits he has difficulty in social settings. All this adds to the show. As Byrne says, if it’s perfect, what is to discuss? In his usual manner, Byrne asks many questions and answers none. According to Byrne, it is not enough to merely perform anymore – there needs to be a message. This show was full of messages from getting out to vote and register, the white guilt he feels, and the inclusivity of the band with the different countries they represent. It was all done as part of the show, not a straight lecture. He is too intelligent for that.
If you could not see the live performance on Broadway, Spike Lee captured it exceptionally well in the film of the same name. Lee states, “If you don’t record it, it’s gone forever.” Lee incorporates pictures of those fallen held, in some cases, by their loved ones as part of “Hell You Talmbout,” originally done by Janelle Monáe. He includes footage backstage and a wonderful montage of the cast biking off into NYC after the show. Watch even if you saw the show on Broadway for all the extras, closeups, and behind-the-scenes workings.
Byrne is also collaborating on a children’s book of the same name.
No sooner did the show begin than it was over. Off was Byrne on his bike into the gray cityscape; no autographs, parting words, or farewells. When Utopia arrives, Doshi must get the “Burn’s” signature.
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David Byrne’s Desert Island Discs – Talks about his family and music – Radio Broadcast
American Utopia – David Byrne
With David Byrne, Gustavo Di Dalva, Tim Keiper, Mauro Refosco, Jaquelene Acevedo, Daniel Freedman, Karl Mansfield, Stéphane San Juan, Renée Albulario, Chris Giarmo, Abe Nouri, Angie Swan, and Bobby Whooten III.
Associate choreographer Elizabeth Dement; production stage manager Julie Devore; production supervision Gregory T. Livoti, press representative Boneau/Bryan-Brown; advertising SpotCo; technical supervision Mark Edwards Hudson Theatrical Associates; producer Bee Carrozzini; company manager Elizabeth Rublien; general management Foresight Theatrical; lighting design Rob Sinclair; sound design Pete Keppler; music director Karl Mansfield, Mauro Refosco; production consultant Alex Timbers; choreography and musical staging by Annie-B Parson.
St. James Theatre
246 W. 44th Street
New York, NY 10036